After wrapping up the 2015 non-conference cakewalk, the N.C. State Wolfpack return to the friendly confines of Carter-Finley Stadium to host the 1-3 Louisville Cardinals.
Dating back to last season, N.C. State has won five straight road games, a feat the school hasn’t accomplished in 43 years.
In last week’s 63-13 thumping of the South Alabama Jaguars, Matt Dayes and Jaylen Samuels did what they’ve done all season. The duo combined for 262 yards and five touchdowns. Through four games, the pair have combined to reach the endzone 17 times, two more than last season’s total of 15. As a team, the Wolfpack’s ground game set a single-game school record with seven touchdowns.
Coming into this game, a lot is still unknown about the Wolfpack. Dave Doeren’s club has yet to face a team from a Power 5 conference. On the other hand, Louisville has opened the season with a relatively difficult slate. Bobby Petrino’s team opened the season 0-3, losing each game by just one score. If not for poor clock management, there’s a chance the Cardinals could be at worst 3-1. Having said that, when the chips were down, Louisville was unable to pull out victories against Auburn and Clemson.
Bobby Petrino’s teams have always been known for good offense, but on paper, this year’s version has struggled with the ball. Speaking during Monday’s ACC teleconference, Dave Doeren says his team will have to be prepared for the possibility of facing two quarterbacks.
"Lamar Jackson settled in last game and had a great rushing performance. He is their leading rusher and we expect to see a lot of QB rushes," said Doeren. "We really have to have two game plans based on the person they are playing."
Jackson isn’t the only quarterback turning heads in this game. Jacoby Brissett has done a masterful job for the Pack in 2015. Brissett has completed 74 of 95 passes for 809 yards and six touchdowns. Brissett has also rushed for a score. You have to go all the way back to last season’s game against Georgia Tech to find Brissett’s last pick, a streak of seven games.
"Their quarterback is making good decisions, he hasn’t thrown an interception in 170-something passes," Petrino told the media. "He is making good decisions and I thought last year he got better and better with each game. Now he is in the same offense for the second year in a row so he is more precise with his decision making."
The Louisville coach also let it be known Monday that he and his team began preparing for the Pack while in the midst of preparation for Samford. Petrino said he felt confident in his team’s ability to go out and beat Samford while working on N.C. State film.
Brissett will have to be on top his game Saturday against a Louisville defense that is excellent at forcing turnovers. The Cardinals are tied for 7th in the country with 10 turnovers forced, including nine interceptions. Louisville was tops in the nation last year at forcing turnovers.
Perhaps the catalyst for the Cardinals’ ability to force turnovers starts up front. Dave Doeren raved about defensive tackles Sheldon Rankins and DeAngelo Brown on Monday.
"I think they have two of the best defensive tackles we will see. They use their hands well and shed blocks," said Doeren. "We have to do a good job of handling all of their blitz packages. They are a high-pressure team on third down."
If there is a flaw in the Louisville defense, it might be their ability to get off the field on third down. Todd Grantham’s defense ranked 81st in America thus far, allowing opponents to convert on 40-percent of third downs. That’s right on par with the Wolfpack’s offense this season. N.C. State has converted 28 of 53 third downs, good enough for 52-percent.
If you believe in trends, then you know N.C. State struggles in ACC openers. The Wolfpack have dropped five of their last seven conference openers, including the last four. The last two years have been difficult for Doeren’s team, facing Clemson and Florida State the last two seasons. Youth and inexperience led to the inability to finish close games, something the third-year coach believes has changed.
"We have Louisville this year, so three good teams to open the conference slate three years in a row, which is great. You go back to last year and talk about finishing. We have had games like this one, where we have been ahead and didn’t finish, but we learned how to finish as the season went on," said Doeren.